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Mother prays for strength at vigil for 3-year-old who died in park

Family, community come together to mourn death of Amari Harley

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Three days after 3-year-old Amari Harley was found dead in a Jacksonville park, the boy's family and the community gathered for a vigil Wednesday evening in his honor.

Amari was reported missing Sunday afternoon after he disappeared while playing at Bruce Park in Arlington during a birthday party. Amari's body was found that night in an underground tank, which city officials said is part of the lift station of the septic system used for restrooms at Bruce Park.

As the sun set Wednesday, Amari's parents returned to the park where he died. Flanked by Amari's young brother and sister, the 3-year-old's mother, Jasmine Bates, struggled to find words as the crowd -- made up of mostly extended family members, but also strangers -- stood close.

"We're just praying for strength right now to get through this," Bates said. "That's pretty much it."

The mother was brought to tears as dozens of people showed their support.

In the darkness, candles lit up the sky for Amari. But as night fell, so did Willie Harley's tears, at one point, steaming down his face -- the pain of the father whose son Amari's death is being mourned by the entire community.

"We need your strength right now, God," the crowd prayed. "We need you today, God."

Shortly afterward, those who gathered released Superman balloons and cheered to remember the happy little boy. 

Though Amari's parents did not wish to speak on camera, a cousin, the Rev. Leon Hill, explained just how deep the hurt is for the family, which is reeling from four deaths in the last three years.

"Willie's brother passed last year. We had a cousin pass last week in Sarasota, a 5-year-old child. It's just a lot for the family right now," Hill said. "It all comes in, sometimes, like a flood. But, you know, we just have to lean on God for that strength and support."

The pain has affected every single member of Amari's family, even the youngest, said attorney Kay Harper Williams, who is representing the family.

"These parents have to grapple with explaining to Amari's 6-year-old brother why Amari is not coming home any more and trying to let him know that it's not his fault," Harper Williams said. "He was one of the boys (who) was playing with Amari throughout the day."

Before the vigil, Amari's family released a statement to News4Jax Wednesday afternoon, which reads, "As you can imagine, our family is devastated. There are no words that can describe or express the loss that we have suffered. In this difficult time, we want to thank everyone for the outpouring of love that you have shown us and ask that you keep us firmly in your prayers."

WATCH: Vigil held for Amari Harley

Community groups, such as MAD DADS, that go to vigils every week said it was very painful to hear about a child, who didn’t know he was in danger, dying.

"It makes me sad because, apparently, he was just playing and ran across a hole and ended up dead," said AJ Jordan, with MAD DADS. "So it is very sad."

Family, attorney want answers

As family, friends and strangers mourned the death of the 3-year-old boy at the vigil, the family's attorney said there are questions that need to be answered.

News4Jax spoke one-on-one with Harper Williams at Bruce Park Wednesday night. Harper Williams said it's too soon to say if the family plans to file a lawsuit, but they are researching how this happened and if someone is at fault. 

"We have to investigate a number of different things related to the city's involvement, other third parties that may or may not have been involved with the maintenance of the park, the event that was going on," Harper Williams said. "At that point, once all of our legwork is done, then I will evaluate whether or not the appropriate step is to litigation."

Whether or not there was a cover over the access to an underground tank where Amari's body was found is part of an investigation spanning the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, the city and the Florida Department of Children and Families.

If the tank access was not secure, it would be at least the third time since April 2016, according to records obtained by the I-TEAM.

Harper Williams said that Amari's death has put Jacksonville, the largest urban park system, in the spotlight, which requires a resolution and action. 

"There is an expectation that standards are applied uniformly, that they are monitored and maintained in a way that citizens in Jacksonville and visitors can feel safe and comfortable and secure," Harper Williams said. 

There is no deadline when the family's attorney will decided on filing a lawsuit. 

"The loss of Amari is an unnecessary and avoidable tragedy. This family and this community both need answers," Harper Williams said in a statement released earlier in the day. 

Memorial for Amari continues to grow

As the community continued to mourn Wednesday, a memorial has been growing on top of the tank's lid. Over the last several days, people have been stopping by to pay their respects, leaving flowers, teddy bears, balloons and gifts for the family. 

"It, kind of, makes you stop and appreciate everything you have," teacher Rick Cartlidge said. "Working with kids and families here, it breaks your heart to hear that other families and students are going through this right now."

Some have gone to the memorial to pray and others to cry, but Cartlidge brought his young students Wednesday to pay their respects.

"It's also a chance to talk with students and get their feedback," Cartlidge said. "Even though it's a tough thing, we still have to, kind of, talk about it because it's such a big part of their life right now."

Justin Bobo said he comes to Bruce Park to play basketball every day, and he and his friends notice children playing in the park frequently.

"My heart is broken," he said. "I have two kids myself, and for something like that to happen, it hurts everybody, not just his parents, but everyone as parents. If you have a heart, then you will feel this in your heart."

He said Amari's death has affected everyone in the neighborhood, and is another reason that parents should watch their children's every move.

"As parents, we need to pay more attention to our children, especially at that age. Kids like to get into everything. The same way you would look at them in your house, pay attention to your kids more when they're at the park, too," Bobo said. "I pray for his family and I hope everything they're going through now, that they'll be able to overcome."

In the wake of the tragedy, many are looking to the city of Jacksonville, saying they hope septic tanks in parks are secure.

"For that to be not covered up how it should've been, that's negligence," Bobo said. "I know they probably are needing to come out and inspect more."

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said Tuesday that workers are reviewing the safety of septic tanks at each city park.